A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Kathrin_E

Introduction to the Alemannic Version of Carnival

Rottweiler_Federahannes.jpg Rottweiler Federahannes

This blog focuses on the "Alemannic Fastnacht", the version of carnival taking place in the Southwest of Germany, i. e. the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg. Roughly speaking, we are in the Black Forest and ist surroundings, Swabia and on the shores of lake of Constance, the southern third of the Upper Rhine Plain, the High Rhine Valley, and some areas in the north of Switzerland. It is called „Alemannic“ with reference to the historical Germanic tribe of the Alemannen who settled in this area after the fall of the ancient Romans. That was long ago but when regional culture, dialect etc. is concerned this term is still in use, be it historically correct or not.

This blog is intended to give you an impression of what is going on during the High Days (and already during the previous weeks) when whole towns and villages all of a sudden seem to go crazy for a strictly limited period of time. I am also trying to explain what is behind those traditions (and clean up some common errors and misinterpretations). Ever since I moved to this part of the country I have been fascinated by these unique traditions which are unknown in my home in the North. There is so much cultural background behind them, and the masks and costumes are so elaborate and amazing.

So we will start with some basics, later on I will present individual locations and their particularities. Thus it makes sense to read the blog in consecutive order. The first 10 or so chapters contain background information and are helpful to understand what the festivals are about. There are so many different traditions and local particularities in Baden-Württemberg's Fastnacht that one life won't be enough to see them all.
And make sure you read the "Survival Tips for Newbies";-)

Enjoy an encounter with strange figures, scary devils and witches, funny fantastic creatures, colourful beauties that come to life for a few short days every year in late winter.

'S goht dogege!


Posted by Kathrin_E 16:48 Archived in Germany Tagged local carnival traditions baden-württemberg Comments (2)

What is "Fastnacht"?

Fasnetmeetscarnival.jpg Fastnacht meets carnival

When talking about carnival in Germany, people think about the "big 3" on the Rhine - Köln, Düsseldorf and Mainz – in case they know that there is more than Cologne. The Fastnacht in the Southwest, however, is much different from the silly and noisy carnival of the Rhine cities. Traditions are much older, in some towns masks and costumes have been the same for centuries.

The carnival is the eve of the Lent. Before the time of repentance and prayer begins that finally leads to Good Friday and Easter, there is a period of celebrating and feasting. On the Rhine it is called Karneval, in Bavaria there is the term Fasching, in the Southwest the old term Fastnacht is in use. The word refers to fasting and Fastenzeit, the Lent. Hence it is deeply connected to the catholic calendar (and not a remnant of pagan Germanic spring rituals, although people keep telling you that it is because they don't know where that interpretation derives from). For a strictly limited time the dark powers - devils, ghosts, witches - are allowed to awaken and play their mischief.


What does this lead to in practice? The climax is a big parade through the village or town. Of course, there is partying in the streets and pubs that involves the consumption of large quantities of alcoholic beverages. But there is more to it than just silly fun.

Aufsagen.jpg "Aufsagen" in Rottweil

Being a jester involves making fun of authorities, and the chance to speak openly and tell unpleasant truths. Under the mask the jester won’t be recognized and can say what he likes to say. (A fellow club sister of mine used to be a former minister in the government of Baden-Württemberg. She told me how she once visited the carnival in Rottweil, where a a masked jester approached her and told her loads of details about life and work in her ministry, so he surely must have been an employee, but she did not recognize him.)

Posted by Kathrin_E 17:27 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

When does Fastnacht take place?

NT14.jpg Parade in Singen

Fastnacht/Fasnet takes place on the weekend before the beginning of the Lent. The exact dates change every year according to the Easter date, it's around the weekend 7 weeks before Easter. The so-called High Days last from Thursday to Tuesday.If your calendar does not show the dates, look up the Easter date (which changes every year as it's the Sunday after the first full moon after the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere). Count back to the 7th Sunday before Easter, this is the main weekend.

Activities do not run all five days long at the same level. Most places have one or two main days. You'll have to check individually when activities are on in the place you are interested in. One has to know when to be where.

  1. Schmotziger Dunschtig ("Greasy Thursday"): The first of the High Days. Activities include unearthing or awakening of the Fastnacht, jesters take the town hall keys from the mayor, and similar. Hemdglunker in the evening: people are out wearing white nightshirts and nightcaps.

  1. Fasnetfridig (Friday) and Fasnetsamschdig (Saturday): Kids' parades in many places, generally few activities in public with a few exceptions, like Überlingen with the Hänselejuck on Saturday night. Balls and other events in the evenings.

  1. Fasnetsunndig (Sunday 7 weeks before Easter): Fasnet in full swing everywhere.

  1. Fasnetmendig (Monday) is THE day. In the cities on the Rhine it's called Rosenmontag ("Rose Monday").

  1. Fasnetzyschdig (Tuesday): the last of the High Days. Parades and activities all day long. In the evening, either when the evening bell rings (Rottweil) or no later than midnight, everything is over. Many places have symbolic ceremonies like burning, burying or drowning "the Fasnet" in the shape of, for example, a straw puppet.

  1. Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday): It's over. A true catholic jester goes to mass that morning for repentence and prayer. Afterwards, the guilds have meals that respect the fasting rules of the Lent, i. e. fish, soup, snails, frog legs and similar tasty dishes. In some places people publicly wash their empty purses at the fountain in market square.

  1. Buurefasnet: takes place one week later. Some areas celebrate their Fastnacht on this later date. Best known example is Basel, but also on the German side of the „Rhine knee“ activities reach their climax on the weekend after Ash Wednesday.

Posted by Kathrin_E 17:39 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Pagan Germanic Origins???


Rumours are still alive and popular nowadays that the Alemannic Fastnacht originates in pagan Germanic festivals and has to do with driving out the winter and the evil spirits.


Sadly, even some guilds are still telling this fairytale. Historians have long proved this theory wrong and unveiled its background. Fastnacht, as the name suggests, is connected to the Christian calendar and the Lent (German: Fastenzeit). Its origins are entirely Christian.

Before the Lent with its food restrictions, all perishable animal products like meat, eggs, butter, lard had to be consumed. This resulted in feasts, which involved dance and fun and noise and drinking and dressing up and playing mischief. The catholic church tolerated the carnival and provided a theological interpretation: The jester or fool is the one who abandons and ignores God, thus connected with the devil. See psalm 53,1: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'"

The powers of evil are allowed to come to life for a very limited period, those few days before the Lent. The Lent, however, is a period of repentance and changing one's ways from bad to good, until the resurrection of Christ at Easter finally grants salvation.

The oldest proof of Fastnacht customs dates from the 14th and 15th century - roughly 600 years after the Christianization of the pagan Germans. Why would a pagan tradition suddenly spring back to life after so many centuries?

The "Germanic" interpretation was first published in the 1920s when mythology and nationalism were already en vogue. Guess who then used, and abused, the Fastnacht as "Germanic customs" in the 1930s... If people were aware that they are repeating Nazi ideology, they'd be more careful about the interpretations they use.

Posted by Kathrin_E 17:49 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Narrenzüfte – Jester Guilds

SaAbend_Spitzbue1.jpg Oberwindener Spitzbue

Fastnacht activities in a town or village are organized and controlled by the local jester guild (Narrenzunft). The guilds are organized like clubs and only members and their guests may wear the costume and participate. The Fastnacht guilds have one or a few figures that stay the same for years and decades. They don't change every year. Those costumes (called "Häs") and wood-carved masks are hand-made, precious and beautiful to look at. There are a couple of places that keep centuries-old traditions alive, the best known among them is Rottweil. On the other hand, Fastnacht, or in dialect "Fasnet", is a very lively, modern movement. New guilds are founded every year, new figures invented.

The jesters are organized in guilds (Narrenzünfte) which determine the Häs (costume) and the activities. Small villages often have only one guild, thus only one Fastnacht costume everyone wears. In larger villages and towns there may be more guilds - Freiburg, for example, has 35. The oldest guilds, like Villingen, date back to the 16th century.

How many guilds are there in Baden-Württemberg? No one knows, because new ones are founded every year. In 2001 their total number was estimated at 1,200. Sixteen years later, there may be several dozens, if not hundreds, more. New guilds are founded and new Fastnacht figures are invented all the time. Certain artists make their living with the creation of new Häs figures. Other people just use their own imagination. Fastnacht is booming.


The jester guilds are active all year round, not only on Fastnacht. They hold meetings, offer activities for kids and youths, organize hikes and trips just like any other club (without the Häs, of course) and play an important role in the social life of the villages.

Posted by Kathrin_E 18:00 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Survival Tips for Newbies

Schuttig_attacking2.jpg Saublodere attack in Elzach

The Alemannic Fasnet is no theater performance, the spectators are part of the event and will not necessarily be treated gently, no matter if they are locals or tourists! From being dusted or brushed to hits with pig's bladders, confetti attacks, having your faces painted or being caught in a net, there is a wide variety of mischief unsuspecting visitors may be confronted with. You may also be forced to recite or sing verses in local dialect.


All this is supposed to be harmless fun. Some guys, however, show a nasty sense of humour... Just in case: Most guilds provide each of their members with an individual number that is worn on the Häs, so if someone really does wrong he or she can be identified by that number.

Regional customs vary widely. While in Rottweil or Villingen the worst that can happen to you is being dusted or brushed, in Elzach you are facing hard hits with (real, smeary, stinky) pig's bladders.

Scariest and unforgettable story that happened to me is this:
I was watching the parade in Oberwinden together with my (then) boyfriend. I was standing in the front row, camera ready, when I felt two hands tenderly resting on my shoulders. Well, I thought that was boyfriend who was standing behind me so didn't react, just smiled. The hands tightened their grip a little. From the corner of my eyes I noticed that something was wrong. Guy hadn't been wearing black gloves, erm... he hadn't been wearing a grey furry jacket either... Then a devil's face appeared above my left shoulder! *Scream* (Big laugh for everybody else... Devil was nice, though, and didn't take me along.)

If you love being in the middle of action, you may ignore the following. Not everyone does, though, and not everyone enjoys being made fun of.


So here are a few 'survival tips' for scared first-timers:

  1. Don't stand in the front row - well, if you want to take photos you have to, but then be prepared for some hits...
  2. Very important: Keep the belt of your camera round your wrist or neck all the time to prevent it from falling down. No one will attack your camera on purpose, but through the masks people don't see much and may hit or push you by mistake. This measure has already saved mine at least half a dozen times.
  3. Don't wear your Sunday best.
  4. Avoid wearing hats or caps (they will be taken and put onto somebody else's head - well, that way you'll get to know people.) A rainproof jacket with a hood is best on bad-weather days. No umbrellas please, as they take everyone else's sight.
  5. Avoid wearing bright neon colours or similar that make you stand out in the crowds and easy to spot.
  6. Tie your shoelaces with a safe double or triple knot.
  7. Beware of big guys dressed up as witches.
  8. (whispers) The safest place is close to a group of teenage girls who look like the town's dance floor queens because THEY will attract all the attention and get the hits.

DiscoQueen1.jpg FasnetSingen28.jpg

Posted by Kathrin_E 18:09 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Fastnacht Dictionary

The Fastnacht has its own 'scientific' terms which derive from the regional dialect and are mostly untranslatable. I am using some of these and when visiting a Fastnacht location you will also come across them. So here is a little dictionary.

Häs: The entire costume of the jester from head to toe. Each guild decides about the Häs all its members wear. You have to be member or guest of the guild to wear it.
Larve: The mask. In some parts of the Neckar valley also called "Scheme". Besides the most common woodcarved masks, there are also masks made of textile, paper-mâché and (rare) wire gauze.
Narrenzunft: Jester guild.
Narrenrat: Guild council, usually 11 members of the guild, with the Zunftmeister as president.
Rollen and Schellen: Bells, big or small, that are worn by certain types of jesters on belts round the body.
Blätzle, Spättle, Fleckle: Small pieces of fabric, usually cut in the shape of shingles or triangles, that are sewn on a garment and cover the whole Häs.

Streckschere.jpg Streckschere in action
Streckschere: folding wooden scissors that can be extended several metres and serve for grabbing unsuspecting spectators' hats, for example.
Saublodere: Pigs' bladders (real ones!!!) filled with air like a balloon.
Narrensprung: a) regional term for Fastnacht parades, b) the pole jump performed by Federahannes in Rottweil.
Hemdglunker: Parades or street parties in long white nightshirts and nightcaps, usually on Greasy Thursday as the beginning of the High Days.
Wecken: Waking of the town at the crack of dawn by bands who make more noise than music.
Guggemusik: A kind of music performed by amateur bands, usually brass and percussion, that will tear the ears of every serious musician apart but is big fun to everyone else. „Gugge“ actually means „plastic or paper bag“.

Narrenbaum1.jpg Narrenbaum
Narrenbaum: A long pole with a fir tree at the top, decorated with ribbons and similar, that is put up in a central square of the town or village during the High Days to show that Fastnacht rules.
Narrentreffen: meetings of jester guilds. These take place about every weekend between January 6 and the High Days. The different Fastnacht associations usually organize a big meeting once a year. Guilds that celebrate an anniversary (or just think it's a good idea without any particular reason) invite other guilds and hold a meeting. A big parade is an essential part of each meeting. These are worth seeing because you'll get to see many, many different guilds from the whole region that normally don't to their activities together.

NZ_Freiburg.jpg Narrenzeichen from Freiburg
Narrenzeichen: A little badge which is sold to the spectators at parades. The income supports the guild’s activities during Fastnacht and throughout the year. Some places force everyone to buy the badge as entrance fee, others keep it voluntary. It is good manners to buy the Narrenzeichen, though. Grt one, they don‘t cost much, you support the hosting guild AND you get a unique little souvenir. Many people even collect these badges.

Posted by Kathrin_E 18:18 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Narresome: Children in the Fastnacht Guilds

Cuteness Alert!

Vill_littlestachi1.jpg Villinger Stachi junior
H_nselejuck05.jpg Baby Hänsele in Überlingen

Children in the Fastnacht are known as "Narresome" (Narrensamen - jester seed). Since they are the future, the guilds want and support them. Many guilds organize separate parades and events for children. In addition to the Fastnacht season, most guilds also offer activities for children and families throughout the year.
Kids of all ages also take part in the big parades, at least in those that take place in the daytime. They first stay at the hand of a parent, when they are older they go on their own.

Fransenkleidle in Rottweil --------------- Witch mum and daughter in Freiburg

Children usually go in the same full Häs as the adults, but in most places smaller kids will not yet wear masks. Some guilds paint the faces of the children instead. If they wear masks, you can only guess from the size how old the person inside the Häs may be.

Vill_Portr_t8.jpg Villingen
Parents who are members of a guild will drag their offspring along to the parades as soon as the littlies fit in a miniature Häs and survive being outdoors for a couple of hours. You will see babies and toddlers in their prams and strollers, still unable to walk but already wearing a Häs. Cute!

FR_H_llengilde.jpg Family in Freiburger Höllengilde
I cannot help but wonder, though, how they teach a one year-old that the scary witch pushing the pram is his mama!

Posted by Kathrin_E 02:54 Archived in Germany Comments (0)


Witches take part in about every parade. They are essential and traditional figures in the Alemannic Fastnacht.

Or are they?

OGHexe4.jpg Witch from Offenburg
The figure of the witch is so popular and widespread today that hardly anyone is aware how young it actually is. In 1933 a couple of people in Offenburg invented a witch costume. Three years later, in 1936, the first witch guild (Hexenzunft) was founded in Offenburg. Not earlier!

Since the 1950s dozens of witch guilds have been founded all over Baden-Württemberg, and more are born every year. Thes seem to compete who invents the scariest, weirdest faces. Here are two examples from a wide selection.

Beware of the witches... There are often big guys inside the witch Häs who are up to all kinds of pranks. They usually carry broomsticks, forks, crooked sticks or similar utensils which are used not only for fights among themselves but also to tease and threaten the spectators. See my survival tips...

Broomstick fight between two witches from Gengenbach

But witches are always good for a show. Some groups practise amazing acrobatics that include building pyramides. (Sorry, these are scans of rather old photos, that's why they are so small.)

Others are experts in chemistry, like the witch guild from Aulendorf in Swabia. On their cart they transport a stove on which they burn no-idea-what, a mix of ingredients that produces a well-calculated amount of smoke and stinky smell to ‚amuse‘ the crowd.

The coolest witches of all, however, are the Springerhexen from Brochenzell.
This was really the best show I ever saw in a parade. They do pole-jumping. The mat and poles are carried along, and set up whenever there is room and time for a stop. Two strong guys hold up the obstacle while the others perform a variety of jumps, happily showing their flouncy knickers. Priceless!

Posted by Kathrin_E 03:29 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Guggemusik Bands

Guggemusik originates in the Swiss carnival but has become more and more popular in the South West of Germany, too. There are quite a number of these funny bands in the weirdest costumes in many parades.

Originally these bands used self-made instruments built from stove pipes, anything that can be beaten rythmically, bags and trash. Nowadays they have become more professional and use real instruments. Authentic „trash“ bands are a rarity.

Most bands consist of brass and drums. Often the instruments look as battered and beaten as they sound. In some places tradition includes a ceremonial washing of the musical instruments in the icy water of the town fountain at the beginning of the season.

IMG_37426.jpg Still life

The rules how to play Guggemusik are easy:
1. The majority of the band plays the same song.
2. Start together and finish together. No one cares what happens in between.
3. Make as much noise as you can.
4. It does not matter at all whether you hit the right notes or not.
5. It's the listeners' problem whether or not they recognize the piece you're playing, not yours.
6. Have fun.

A good Guggemusik will torture the ears of any 'serious' musician... but it's just wonderful!!!
There are even Guggemusik festivals and competitions: The noisiest band wins!

IMG_37509.jpg A typical conductor
Big head masks, usually with oversized mouths that allow blowing a brass instrument, are often part of the band's costumes. When doing a concert, the heads are taken off after the first piece for the players' comfort. Other bands paint their faces with utmost imagination. The conductor usually has the biggest head of them all and a special costume.

IMG_37482.jpg "Überdruck" at the Schwäbisch Gmünd festival
Hardcore fans of Guggemusik will love the Guggemusik festival in Schwäbisch Gmünd. It takes place several weeks before the High Days, usually on a weekend in mid or late January. Bands from the region as well as from several other countries, carefully selected for the quality of their performance, play on three stages in town.

A major centre of Guggemusik is and remains Basel, with the "Monschterkonzert" on Tuesday evening as the biggest musical event. But bands will be out and about any time during the three days of Basler Fasnacht (except during Morgestraich) – and I mean any time. Having a band marching up and down the street in front of your hotel room at 3 a.m. will test the limits of tolerance even in the biggest fans - speaking from personal experience.
FR09_Umzug4_Ohregribler.jpg "Ohregribler" from Basel in the parade in Freiburg

… but now there has been enough theory. Let’s start looking at some hotspots of Fastnacht happenings!

Posted by Kathrin_E 01:47 Archived in Germany Comments (1)

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